Evidence and Decisions

A policy or a management decision about the environment has two major components. Simplified, we can call these content and process. Content deals with the evidence about the issue while process is about how a decision is reached and applied.


Over the span of several recent Canadian governments, decisions about our environment have given higher priority to processes rather than to content. Political and bureaucratic direction has dominated the decision-making. The evidence needed for science based policy and management has been given ever-decreasing importance.


The Harper government made no secret of their war on science-based management of the environment. They cut funding for basic research, closed world-renown Canadian environmental research operations, such as the Experimental Lakes Area, destroyed most libraries of environmental research documents (11 of them) and cut funding for fundamental ecological research in universities. All this was rationalized as vital to redirect support toward profitable commercial activities. Apparently they did not know or would not admit the outstanding example that curiosity-driven research enabled all the commerce that was stimulated by transistor circuits. That commerce happened because of knowledge produced by basic researchers into fundamentals of crystal structure at the Bell Labs in New York City. Such far-sighted support of basic research by wise business managers has produced many bursts of commerce. Harper’s policy wonks failed to understand that basic science underpins most profitable enterprises.


The Trudeau government made many campaign promises to reverse the long trend that downplayed science and, instead, return to evidence-based environmental management. Funding is only one cause of suppression of evidence in government decision-making. Advice on government decisions from scientists has been widely replaced with evidence derived from business planning that is delivered by people with management and political training but no depth in science. Giving priority to the bureaucratic processes rather than the content of government decision-making is a major cause of change in rationales of government policy. Such a trajectory is self-perpetuating. Bureaucrats trained in management, adopt policy and management goals related to smoothness of the bureaucratic processes. Political appeal and bureaucratic ease are chosen rather than long-term national benefits. Decision makers trained in business management or political science also use evidence differently from people trained in science. In business, law and politics a simple majority wins but in science 95 percent certainty is the standard.


As business managers penetrated the decision-making processes, they moved into the government hierarchy as career bureaucrats and replicated themselves on the political ladders leading to Deputy Ministers.


This conquest of environmental decision-making by policy-makers whose primary objective is political success, monetary profit and increased monetary flow in the short term is evident in many current government decisions. It underlies the failure of the Trudeau government to fulfill campaign promises to renew protection and investigation of the environment. Trudeau has removed the stringent gag that Harper used to prevent scientists from explaining their research to the public. But the current government has done little else to protect the nation’s natural riches or to attempt to fit our human activities into ecological or evolutionary processes so that those natural processes will be sustained. Recent sinking of the Iranian tanker, the Sanchi, spilling the largest volume ever of toxic natural gas condensate, points up the lack of content in policy decisions about Canada’s tar sands industry, pipelines and tanker routes.


Career bureaucrats trained in management have taken the places of scholarly, skilled and experienced researchers and have redirected policy to make it easier for profit-makers to market the nation’s resources. They argue that, for example, meaningful environmental impact statements would just slow the process of growing the monetary profit of commerce. There is another way of looking at this. Commerce can most easily enhance its profits by avoiding costs. Not protecting the environment is an easy way to avoid costs as long as the government policy and regulations allow it. Cleaning up after such profit-making means taxpayers are paying for costs that should have been paid by the corporation as part of their business process. Thus, Canadians got to pay $250 million to clean up the Sydney tar ponds. And we are and will continue to pay to refrigerate the arsenic trioxide left behind by the Giant gold mine in Yellowknife. All Canadians will pay to run huge refrigerators underground in the mine to keep the arsenic trioxide waste left behind by the profit-makers from poisoning the surrounding environment and the home places of Yellowknife citizens. We paid $900 million up front + $200 million annually forever in order to mine $ 2.7 billion in gold. A false assumption at the base of many economic projections and rationalizations is that benefitting economically from processing resources is a linear prThat is; the resource moves through the industrial-commercial process and out the other end after the profit has been captured. We know better. These processes are almost always circular, not linear. The waste and the impacts of the industrial-commercial processing cycle back in the ecosystem and must be dealt with. In examples mentioned here, the processors escaped with the profit and left cycled impact costs for us taxpayers to pay. Not even approximate cost accounting.


Commonly it is politically much more comfortable to allow the corporations to continue to reap profits and the work force to continue pursuing their historical jobs than to take policy positions to prevent predictable disasters. Such was the case that produced the collapse of the northern cod fishery. Scientists warned the government that declining cod stocks predicted an imminent collapse of the fishery. But several ministers and their bureaucrats advised against the restriction of the fishery because it was politically difficult. The severe decline in cod stocks forced the closure of the fishery in 1992. The ultimate political difficulty was much greater.


Government subsidies of corporations, sometimes from afar, are not all historical. Activities of tar sands corporations, allowed by government policy have been shown by independent research to have significant negative effects on the surrounding and downstream environments. If we wish to salvage those environments, we will be given the opportunity to pay more subsidies to enable short-term corporate profits and let politicians boast about the nation’s economy. If full-cost accounting were done honestly on some such developments using a reasonable time base, and using thoughtful valuing of all natural riches and processes, it is likely that many such projects would not be considered. Profitability can allow predictably poor living conditions for the future of the nation.


Honest full-cost accounting would require the perspective of scholars with some accumulated experience. The living conditions of future humans and all other creatures and natural processes would depend on the policy decisions emerging from such accounting so scientific accuracy would be required. And that accuracy would be required across a complex variable involving ecological, sociological and economic elements. In order to improve on the current basis for decisions affecting the planet’s future, politicians need to see clearly an objective agreed upon by the citizens. Currently that objective is mainly monetary. Ability to spend by the individual and family. Ability to meet costs of the municipality. Ability to satisfy the criteria of economic health, as dictated by economic theory, for the nation and internationally.


Some have questioned whether these objectives are superficial. Questions are especially penetrating when we consider evidence of death rates by starvation or forces driving migrations or living conditions of those migrants. Economic criteria do not measure quality of living conditions. And the priorities used in decision-making are questioned when acceptable economics and high quality living conditions in some other cultures are seen clearly.


If we wish to adjust the balance of priorities used in decisions involving short-term monetary flows in concert with longer-term qualities of life, we must become thoughtful and communicate our citizens’ objective for policy direction. Our objective must incorporate ecological, sociological and economic elements into one complex variable.




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